What Did Dr. King Mean by Love?

By Joseph Orosco (August 15, 2017)

As someone who regularly teaches about the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I often spend time discussing with students the ways in which King’s ideas are taken out of context and turned into sound bites in order to support positions he would not himself have taken. The most obvious example is how his most memorable line from the “I Have a Dream” speech about not judging people based on the color of their skin but the content of their character is used to justify attacks on affirmative action—a policy he definitely endorsed—or cited in a way to claim that the best path forward for racial justice is to somehow ignore race and become colorblind. The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville is proof that we cannot simply try to ignore the problems of racism now.

All across the country, marches and vigils are scheduled to honor the victims of racist violence and to stand against the surge of white nationalist groups in the United States. People are seeking guidance about how to think about the public and proud resurgence of this form of bigotry. Inevitably, the words and ideas of Dr. King are being invoked, especially his thoughts on the power of love in times of hate. One of his quotes, often bandied about, is this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

But the hard question is what does it mean to love and not hate in the aftermath of Charlottesville? Does it mean it’s somehow wrong to feel angry or violated about people proudly brandishing neo-Nazi symbols on their weapons and shields? Does it mean the best response is to forgive the purveyors of violence like the young man who ran down protestors, killing Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville?

In the speeches in which King talked about love, he often spent time explaining what he meant; love has several meanings. In saying that supporters of racial justice had to have love in their hearts, he didn’t mean that they had to be continually positive and upbeat, or that they had to approach racists in friendship. That’s the kind of love we share with intimates or friends. King said the love that we ought to have in the struggle for justice is the kind that acknowledges all people, even the white supremacists, as human beings. And human beings are capable of making their own moral choices and being held responsible for their actions. We aren’t called upon to like or be friendly to those who are racist. It means we ought not to dehumanize or kill them as part of our fight for justice.

Someone asked me recently if, out of love, King wouldn’t have asked to sit down with a white supremacist and try to listen to their concerns and understand where they were coming from, in hopes of some kind of reconciliation and dialogue. I thought about this and realized that the answer was probably no. King never asked, for instance, to meet with Bull Connor, the rabidly racist police chief in Birmingham, Alabama who sent police dogs to attack protestors.


He never called for public meetings with ordinary Black and white citizens to dialogue. Instead, he called for marches, boycotts, and urged legislation that would halt business as usual in that city, deplete the pocketbooks of segregationist business owners, and criminalize racist attacks and intimidation. King wrote in 1963: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is important also.”

This is not to say that fellowship and dialogue are not important, especially when friends approach one another to talk about their fears, hopes, and biases. But in thinking about responses to white supremacy in the country today, we ought to be clear that King’s emphasis on love did not mean only sticking to individual efforts and trying to change the implicit racism of our friends and relatives.

Toward the end of his life, he called for a revolution of values that would utterly transform the United States and its commitment to materialism, racism, and militarism at institutional levels. The fight against white supremacy must be tied to issues of poverty, jobs, reducing our military and nuclear weapons, curbing police brutality, and providing decent health care and education for everyone. These were all issues of concern for King; this is what he meant by love.





2 thoughts on “What Did Dr. King Mean by Love?”

  1. Thank you, Joseph. I have friends who tell me we need to get in dialogue with those others who seem to only preach hate. I ask myself, in the late 30s in Germany would I have chosen dialogue with the up and coming Nazis. For me, the answer is no. So I’m glad to see that love can be a verb to move us to protest in all the ways we can against hate but does not require me to befriend today’s white supremacists.

  2. Thanks Joseph. This is great.

    One thought it inspires is that King was also speaking of love as the solidarity of the oppressed, their love for one another. A feature of racism as a form of oppression is that it encourages self-hatred or shame among its targets, through victim blaming, through false moral equivalencies, through powerlessness to change things in the face of great power. Also, Orlando Patterson has argued that a core component of slavery across all cultural forms is what he calls “systematic social dishonor,” often enacted with ritualized violence. The organizing King did worked against the isolating and dispiriting and demoralizing effects of that. He did it in a Protestant idiom with deep African-American inflection. Jesus as a man was subjected to the worst kind of ritual violence inflicted to uphold unjust power, due to what we might now call a national or ethnic identity, “King of the Jews” in mockery. God works his salvific grace through and as the most humbled and humiliated of humans. God throughout the texts on which King and his tradition drew calls on people to lift one another up, especially those oppressed and laid low. Forgiveness when one feels guilt and shame even when it is imposed without justification by oppressive power is a huge thing. The congregation as a community, the communion of the saints, the collective workings of the holy spirit connecting people, had this-worldly meanings for what other traditions would call solidarity.

    It is notable that other black political idioms of the period also spoke in their ways of the importance of collective self-love and self respect against the demeaning social and psychological actions of racism, and the basis for demanding social respect, whether it was “Black is beautiful” or the programs of the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers or Maulana Ron Karenga’s US, or developments rooted i the older New Negro cultural, intellectual and historical movements from the 1910s onward, or the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and black trade unionism.

    When I was a child my family attended a predominantly black Episcopal church in Boston for a number of years. The children learned civil rights songs that sometimes were also hymns based in spirituals. I particularly loved “This Little Light of Mine,” which speaks to your comment on light driving out darkness. We would sing of letting our our collectives lights shine “all over” various places, and over one another in various loving ways. Most tellingly, we sang of letting our lights shine all over the hostile and destructive forces, the enemies of freedom and equality and justice: “All over Louise Day Hicks, I’m gonna let it shine”; “All over Donald Trump, I’m gonna let it shine.” Light carries the power of exposure, of recognition, of truth telling.

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